Processing cacao beans with raw integrity was the single most difficult project we have undertaken at Big Tree Farms to date. It was a complete reinvention of the wheel because simply put, there were (and are) no technologies available which can process cacao beans under commonly accepted Raw temperature standards. There was nothing to go on, no point from which to start, so it was trial and error over a period of four years and the building (and scrapping) of many locally-engineered appropriate technologies along the way. It was a very long and very costly process with only one real market niche at the end of the tunnel; the raw foods/body-care community. And while it may seem like a crazy notion to spend such time and energy on a relatively miniscule market segment, we did so because it represents a tremendous opportunity for value-addition by small-farmers in a market where their scale would not necessarily make them unable to compete on price. Conventional processors of cacao butter and powder and their associated economies of scale make it impossible for small-scale social operations to compete. But the flip-side (we are learning) is also true; the production of TRULY COLD-PROCESSED cacao butter and powder is an industry so small and so new that no industrial technologies (even antiquated ones) can operate within the required temperature limits. And this is the key point; namely that most (and possibly all) of the cacao products (Butter and Powder and likely many other cacao products) being sold as raw in the US market at present are actually being processed with high heat, because everyone importing is purchasing from industrial processors using industrial cacao processing equipment (most coming from a handful of major processors in either Equador or Peru). Actual cold-processing of cacao butter and powder is not “state-of-the-art” and cannot in most cases be obtained from industrial equipment. It is a tremendously inefficient process from start to finish and leads to high final prices that are not competitive (or even similarly priced) with organic commodities. Strange then how it seems that with every passing month, bulk raw cacao butter and powder prices tend to fall ever closer to organic commodity levels…I just heard from a manufacturer in NY that purchased a pallet of Raw Butter at $3.75/lb….assuming the importer (who will remain nameless) was taking a 25-30% margin on a pallet sale, that puts there origin purchase somewhere around $1.80-$2.00….And this is an obvious fraud.
Quickly before I get into actual product specifics, I want to just bullet point some of the claims that are made with raw cacao products on the market right now. I will then hit on most of these points either directly or indirectly in discussions of the ingredients below;
• Raw cacao beans must be hand-peeled
• Truly raw cacao beans should never be fermented because fermenting piles of cacao often heat to temperatures so high that they can spontaneously combust...
• Using un-roasted cacao beans ensures the raw integrity of the processed butter or powder that is produced
• By using state-of-the-art industrial butter presses raw integrity of cacao butter and powder is ensured
• The finest raw cacao powder is pressed so as to retain 10-12% of its original fat content
The above bullet points have been collected from statements made on the websites of the current top importers and resellers of “raw” cacao butter and powder. Keep them in mind as I discuss the various ingredients we cold-process below.
Cacao Beans – To ferment or not to ferment…that is the question; Fermentation The actual answer to this in regards to raw standards is that it makes no difference. Contrary to the “factoid” above in the bullet points which obviously was taken from a Harry Potter novel, fermenting beans must be carefully managed as temperature is one of the three variables that can “make or break” a quality finished bean. If fermentation temperatures reach or climb above 50C there is a high risk for “hammyness” which is an awful flavor profile you could liken to barnyard manure in your mouth which occurs when fermenting beans come out of balance. In my experience (and remember that our experience here is substantial as we own and operate the only cacao fermentery in Bali with an annual capacity of 500 ton) I have only seen a fermentation pile rise about 50C. With good management you can attain full fermentation of cacao beans without temperatures ever rising above 115F (46C). Now, this is not to say that Polyphenol activity is not reduced somewhat through fermentation, but then, polyphenol activity is not part of a commonly accepted raw standard. What fermentation DOES do is to vastly alter the flavor of the seed from being extremely acidic/tannic to developing softer flavors of fruit and the precursors for chocolate flavor.
Nibs – Nibs are shattered kernels of cacao. Nibs can either be produced by running through a winnower (a machine that shatters the dry kernel and blows away the papery skin) or by hand-peeling. In our experience, one laborer can hand-peel about 4lbs of cacao beans/day… A winnower can produce hundreds of pounds/hour if the product is roasted. And if the product is raw and simply sun-dried the machinery (depending on its size)can operate inefficiently to produce approximately 50 pounds/hour of shattered beans which must be hand-sorted to remove bits of skin that haven’t removed from the kernel….But regardless of the inefficiency, hand-peeling would at least quadruple the cost of the raw goods at the first stage of processing.
Cacao Paste –Accepted practice is to grind the nib into a paste using heat which liquefies the oils and allows the paste (or liquor) to run freely and easily refine. At Big Tree Farms we are only able to produce a rough ground cacao paste which is only used for butter pressing. Commercial pastes which are super smooth (and taste like chocolate) are created by stone milling or ball mill refining (both of which typically increase temperatures to at least 60C). Colleagues in the Cacao industry say that it is possible to produce a lower (raw) temp paste with a stone mill but this would likely not ring with the flavors of chocolate…remember that the chocolate flavor profile most people know and love comes from chemical processes which occur during roasting…Without this process cacao tends to taste somewhat acidic and grassy/herby with high notes that do not exist in roasted chocolate.
Cacao Butter – The golden oil of the Food of the Gods! Our virgin butter is processed using a proprietary pressing system we have developed over the past 4 years. We do not have a cacao factory contract produce our butter (and powder) as do ALL other players in the raw market at present... We do it ourselves in two locations close to our cacao farms using the scale-appropriate equipment we have built ourselves with the help and input of MANY cacao industry professionals. Simply put, commercially available hydraulic presses operate at temperatures of +/- 200F. As one industry professional in the US stated:
“Typically for us if the press and the liquor preheater were not at or above 200F we considered it to be malfunctioning and corrective actions were taken. “
These sentiments are corroborated across the industry. We have searched long and hard for available machinery that could operate at lower temps and with the single exception of a german expeller press which could not extract a viable % of the total butterfat, no technologies were available.
Cacao Powder - Once Cacao beans have been ground into a paste and pressed to release the butter we’re left with “cake”. Cake is then broken up, pulverized and sieved to create cacao powder…In general it is exactly the same process in either cold-processed or conventional processed systems…except for one key point; fat content of the final powder. This is one of the great indicators of a suspect raw cacao supply chain. To explain, cacao powder is available in two commercially traded grades: 10/12% and 22%. These numbers connote the remaining fat present in the powder after processing. 10/12% is obviously far lower than 22% and this is the red flag; In four years of processing and research (including working with German and Swiss engineering companies to test small batch commercial expeller presses) we have never experienced the ability to extract enough virgin cacao butter so as to end up with a 10/12% powder. Ever. And yet the powders being sold by the top raw brands are expousing the virtues of their “raw” 10/12% cacao powder from state-of-the-art processors. Sad but true, these 10/12% powders are ALL frauds. Another cacao processor in the US states that “should the temperature of the press not be maintained at or above 200F, the fats would begin to exceed 12% in the end powder.” In other words, 10/12% powders are not possible in raw processing. Period. NOTE - JUST BECAUSE A CACAO POWDER IS HIGH FAT (for example 22% fat) DOES NOT MEAN IT IS RAW OR COLD-PROCESSED...THIS HAS ALSO BEEN USED TO CONFUSE CONSUMERS.
So this is the story with raw cacao….One of the most sought after and least available products on the market. It is an awful shame that many of the current market leaders of the raw community are so entrenched in a fight for market share that they allow product integrity to place a distant second to revenue. The raw foods community has been unregulated for too long and it shows with blatant fraud occurring throughout the supply from origin to consumer.